For the last three years, the Philadelphia 76ers have embraced the philosophy that one way to win big is to lose big. So it makes perfect sense that on Monday, their youth movement continued with the addition of a 76-year-old man.
It is significant that Jerry Colangelo showed up in Philadelphia less than three weeks before Santa Claus. That likely answered the Christmas wish of many Sixers fans, because Colangelo no doubt arrives bearing the gift of common sense.
Since becoming general manager in 2013, Sam Hinkie’s approach of rejecting or ignoring veterans while accumulating young players and future draft picks has been well-documented and almost universally panned. Hinkie’s work has produced a roster with only one player born before 1990 and a meager 38 victories in the last 186 games.
But, hey, he’s got a bunch of high draft picks and when they mature, the Sixers will be a force! Or so the theory goes.
There are problems with that on many levels. One of them is that if you have a roster full of players between 19 and 23 years old and they do in fact become great players, they have to be paid. So how many max contracts can you give?
There is also no guarantee that when they get to the end of their rookie contracts that they will want to stay. So even if Hinkie finds the magic franchise player – or players – he wants, by the time they are ready to win, they can leave.
But as is the case with everything in sports, the ultimate principal is money. The most loyal of fans still pay full price for tickets, but constant losing decreases the fan base. So less money comes in, and eventually, that has an effect on the rest of the league, as ESPN reported on Tuesday.
Into Hinkie’s world of fantasy comes Colangelo, who brings nearly 50 years of NBA reality. At the news conference to announce his hiring as chairman of basketball operations, Colangelo noted he had been through the rebuilding process four times as GM and eventual owner of the Phoenix Suns.
But it is his recent work as managing director of the U.S. Olympic basketball team that has reinforced his reputation, which already was substantial considering he is in the Hall of Fame.
The most impressive accomplishment for Colangelo with the Olympic team was that he made it do exactly what it was supposed to do. It wasn’t as easy as it might have looked.
After Colangelo became the head of USA Basketball, the U.S. was defeated by Greece, 101-95, in a semifinal game at the 2006 FIBA World Championships. Two nights later, Greece scored only 47 points in a loss to Spain, so the Colangelo-Mike Krzyzewski tandem was off to an somewhat embarrassing start.
But with Colangelo having total authority and providing continuity, the U.S. has now won five consecutive gold medals in the Olympics and World Championships, now called the World Cup of Basketball.
That is what NBA stars are supposed to do. Teams with players such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and all the other great Americans should not be losing to countries that have far less talent. International teams have proven they are capable of winning if the U.S. lets down even slightly. And poorly run or poorly constructed teams are more likely to have a letdown.
Colangelo, however, changed that.
The Philadelphia thing is pretty broken now, which Colangelo witnessed firsthand Monday when the Sixers lost to the Spurs, 119-68, despite Popovich resting Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. Colangelo attended the game and when he looked on the floor, he saw nothing resembling Dr. J, Moses Malone or Charles Barkley, who, well, will not be walking through that door anytime soon.
What Colangelo will do, however, is make the Sixers build a roster the way it should be built and he will make sure the team consists of players who will play the game the way it should be played. Wins will become more frequent than the chances of hitting a number in online roulette. Colangelo has not been perfect in his career, but from setbacks and mistakes, he has a history of figuring out an effective response.
Since he is 76, some will wonder why he wants to subject himself to the incompetence the Sixers have come to embody. I would say there are two reasons – the challenge and the money.
He does not need a lot of either, but no doubt the competitor in him is excited by the opportunity. And you can be sure Colangelo – the astute businessman who was part of groups that bought the Suns for $44 million and sold them for $401 million – is not coming cheap. It may not be Phil Jackson-type money, but I would bet it is not as far away as some might think.
Colangelo may not turn the Sixers around as quickly as fans hope, but he will restore at least one important trait: sanity.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.